Some schools have left A, B, and C behind in favor of report cards with numbers from 1 to 4 or 5. Others still use A, B, C, and F, but have eliminated D. Or how about E, S, and NI? Some avoid letters and numbers in favor of descriptors such as “novice” or “proficient” or detailed narrative descriptions of your child’s progress.

It’s enough to make a parent’s head spin. Yet it’s important to know your school’s grading system so you can figure out how your child is doing.

School leaders cite several reasons for moving away from the traditional A, B, and C. Their goal is to give you an accurate picture of your child’s progress, and some teachers find traditional letter grades too limiting. For example, in some schools, teachers rarely give any grade lower than a C. Although a C is supposed to mean “average,” it represents less-than-average achievement when it is the lowest grade a teacher feels comfortable giving. By switching to a number system, some teachers say they feel freer to give kids the grades they have earned.

Grading changes are also often intended to signal dramatic changes in assessment. In many schools, teachers no longer grade kids based on how they do compared to their classmates, says Thomas Guskey, author of How’s My Kid Doing? A Parent’s Guide to Grades, Marks, and Report Cards. Instead, teachers are trying to grade students “in terms of what they’ve learned and what they’re able to do,” says Guskey, a distinguished service professor at Georgetown College in Kentucky.

This can be a hard concept for parents to grasp, since most moms and dads grew up on the concept of the bell curve. By switching to a totally different grading system, schools hope to shake parents of the old notions of grading kids based on how they compare to their classmates.

Here are some common grading systems and what they mean.

Letters: A, B, C, D, F

This is a traditional grading system, easily understood by parents and students. Or is it? Many parents assume their child is graded on a bell curve, but in most instances that isn’t the case. Instead of issuing a large number of C’s for “average,” as a bell curve would suggest, teachers often give mostly A’s and B’s. It’s important for parents to clarify with the teacher what these grades mean, even though the letters are familiar.

Letters: A, B, C, F

Poor D, dumped by some schools for failure to offer meaningful information to parents. Some teachers complained that D had become a softer option for kids who really deserved to fail. Others said the C had become such a dreaded grade that it carried the same message D once did.

Letters: E, G, S, NI

This grading system is often used with younger children and at schools where teachers want kids to focus on learning, not getting a certain grade. The cutoffs between these letter grades might be more subjective. Often E is for excellent, G is for good, S is for satisfactory, and NI is for needs improvement. Some schools have their own alternative letter scale. Of course, it’s important to know what the letters mean. Parents should also make sure they understand the standards being measured.

Numbers: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5

Numbers are often used to help parents get into the mindset of standards-based assessment rather than comparing students to each other. Parents should resist the temptation to equate 1 with A, 2 with B, and so on. Instead, parents should work with their child’s teacher to understand this grading scale as well as the standards being measured.

Numbers: Numeric averages

Often used with older kids, starting in middle or high school, this simply tells you your child’s average based on classroom tests and assignments. Different schools and districts have different cutoffs for an A, B, C, or F. At one school, 90 percent might be an A. But at another school, the lowest average for an A might be 93.

Words: Categories such as “proficient,” “basic,” or “below basic”

This is a common method when schools are grading children based on standards rather than how they compare to one another. It’s important to know what each category means and the exact standard being measured. These report cards can be long and cumbersome. Deciphering this type of grading system may take longer, but it can be accurate in telling you how well your child is learning the curriculum.

Words: Narrative descriptions

At some schools, teachers write in their own words how your child is doing. For example: “Nancy is very good at reading books for her grade level. She rarely stumbles on a word. Whenever she goes up to the next level, though, she struggles, gets frustrated, and quits. I would like to see her push through these more difficult books all the way to the end.” Narrative report cards are loved by some parents for the detail and loathed by others who think they are too subjective.

Words: Learning outcomes

With this type of report card, a standard is listed and the teacher indicates whether the child has mastered it. This type of report card may be several pages long and studded with check marks, plusses, or minuses. Some parents respond well to these report cards, especially for younger students. Others find them exasperating and just want to say, “So, how’s my kid doing?”

Words: Rubrics

Some report cards, especially for young children, provide descriptions called rubrics that indicate how a child performed on several criteria within a single subject, such as language arts. This enables parents to see if their child excelled in one aspect of a subject, but struggled in another. A rubric needs a thorough explainer and may take some time to absorb, but it can convey a lot of helpful information.

These are some of the grading systems used today, but each state, school district, and school may have its own way of telling parents how their child is faring.

By taking the time to learn exactly what your child’s report card means, you can make sure you respond appropriately, offering praise for good grades and helping your child make changes if the report card suggests room for improvement. If your child’s report card seems out of sync with what you observe at home, talk to the teacher immediately. Report cards are a crucial form of school-home communication, and they’re only effective if everyone knows what the letters or numbers mean.

When the Report Card Isn’t Good

It can be shocking and upsetting when your child brings home a report card that’s worse than you expected. Here are some ways of helping your child get back on track:

  • Make an appointment to review your child’s progress with the teacher. Most report cards are short on detail. Your child’s teacher can tell you more about his specific weaknesses.

  • Work with the teacher to develop a plan to get your child back on track. Things to consider may be tutoring, a seat at the front of the class, or extra lessons to work on at home with a parent.

  • Get to the root of the problem. If your child is struggling in math, she might have missed a key concept several months or even years ago. Today’s testing can identify those weaknesses. Work with your child’s teacher to pinpoint where your child got lost.

  • If your child’s grades dropped in every subject, consider other factors such as anxiety, social pressure, or distractions.

  • Assure your child that you still love him and will help him get his grades up where you know they can be.

Emily Graham contributed to this article.